Not Altogether an Illusion: Translation and Translucence in the Work of Burton Watson

Illustration from Feng Yunpeng's Jinshi suo
Illustration from Feng Yunpeng’s Jinshi suo 金石索 (1821; Index of inscription on bronzes and stones), as featured in The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry, translated and edited by Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1984).

Burton Watson has proven himself one of the best translators of classical Asian literature. Through background information about Watson’s life and close reading of his poetry translations, the following essay highlights the intricacies of his artistry and demonstrates the genius of his translations in reconciling the perceived rift between poetry and scholarship.

Teaching from Eliot Weinberger’s Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, I pointed the class to Burton Watson’s translation of “Deer Fence,”[1] from 1971:


Empty hills, no one in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again. 

One student, a young woman from Shanghai exposed to translation theory and a traditionalist sense of poetry in English, scoffed: “That’s it?”

I remember a college professor of mine relating how her graduate advisor, a meticulous philologist whose translations overflow with annotation, also disparaged Watson’s translations, saying he probably typed up his first drafts and sent them to his publisher without looking at them again. But I also remember William Butler Yeats, from “Adam’s Curse”[2]:

. . . A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught. 

For all the work it takes, Yeats says, to be a poet is still to be “thought an idler by the noisy set / Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen / The martyrs call the world.” Throw certain readers of translation into that noisy set, for the fact is that beneath the surface simplicity of Watson’s lines hide not only years of accumulated scholarly expertise but the internalized discipline of the contemporary American idiom as well.

Since Chinese poetry started being translated into English, poets and sinologists have presented poetry and sinology as if they were locked in eternal conflict. In 1921 Amy Lowell said, “Chinese is so difficult that it is a life-work in itself; so is the study of poetry. A Sinologue has no time to learn how to write poetry; a poet has no time to learn how to read Chinese”; in 1958 George Kennedy said of Ezra Pound, “Undoubtedly this is fine poetry. Undoubtedly it is bad translation”; drawing a distinction between the “poet-translator” and “critic-translator,” James J. Y. Liu wrote in 1982 that while the latter’s “primary aim is to show what the original poem is like, as a part of his interpretation,” the former “is a poet or poet manqué whose native Muse is temporarily or permanently absent and who uses translation as a way to recharge his own creative battery [and] write a good poem in English based on his understanding or misunderstanding of a Chinese poem, however he may have arrived at this”; and in 2004, against those who “believe that translations should consist of word-for-word cribs in which syntax, grammar, and form are all maintained, and in which the translator is merely a facilitator who allows the original poem to speak for itself in a new language,” Tony Barnstone posited that the “literary translator is like the musician who catalyzes the otherwise inert score that embodies Mozart’s genius. . . . Fidelity, true fidelity, comes from a musician’s deeper understanding of the music.”[3] The genius of Watson’s translations is that they reconcile the rift between poetry and scholarship. 

As Weinberger points out in Nineteen Ways, Watson was “the first scholar whose work displayed an affinity with the modernist revolution in American poetry: absolute precision, concision, and the use of everyday speech,” particularly impressive at a time when most anglophone “scholars of Chinese ignored, or were actively hostile to modern poetry.” (“Many still are,” Weinberger adds.) That precision, concision, and everyday speech deepened what T. S. Eliot called Ezra Pound’s invention “of Chinese poetry for our time.” Though Eliot acknowledged it to be an illusion (“an illusion which is not altogether an illusion either”), he explained that when “a foreign poet is successfully done into the idiom of our own language and our own time, we believe that he has been ‘translated’; we believe that through this translation we really at last get the original. . . . His translations seem to be—and that is the test of excellence—translucencies.”[4]

This is the quality that compelled my student, expecting more audible poetic devices, to scoff; but she should know that this quality is itself a poetic device, honed from Watson’s own attentive readings in the entwined lineage of American and Chinese poetry, particularly as seen in Ezra Pound and Kenneth Rexroth. Pay attention, and you can hear it in the echoing o’s and whispering s’s that turn “only the sound of someone talking,” above, into something like onomatopoeia. Watson is perhaps the only translator of Chinese it’s possible to imagine writing to the editor of a literary journal to say, “I can’t tell you how honored I am to be in the same magazine as Charles Reznikoff”; he sent Pound some of his earliest poetry translations (Pound wrote back, but made no comment on the versions), and he had drafts edited by Joanne Kyger, Cid Corman, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg.[5]

Watson is not the poet-translator largely ignorant of Chinese as Pound or Rexroth were. Since the 1970s, he has lived mostly in Japan; nearing ninety, he still spends hours each morning and evening on translation work. Born in 1925, he was first exposed to Asian languages growing up in New Rochelle, New York, when workers at the laundry his father went to gave him lychee nuts, jasmine tea, and illustrated Chinese magazines; later a high school drop-out in the Navy stationed in the South Pacific, he picked up some Japanese to help him on shore leave. After being discharged, he studied at Columbia University, both as an undergrad and for his PhD (completed in 1956), under L. Carrington Goodrich and Chi-chen Wang, and was later a colleague of C. T. Hsia there.

As a scholar, Watson is known for broad cartographies such as Early Chinese Literature (1962), ranging from the eleventh century B.C.E. to the third century C.E., and Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century (1971). These books are authoritative and insightful as overviews and introductions from an era in which few students studied Chinese and fewer had access to it as a living language, yet they are still usable in or out of the classroom today. Nor is their authoritativeness authoritarian; Watson acknowledges his subjectivity when speaking of translation: “The reader should perhaps be reminded that when he reads these early Chinese works in translation, he is at many points reading not an incontrovertible rendering of the meaning of the original, but only one of a variety of tentative interpretations.”[6] In this way, he acknowledges the illusoriness of his translations’ translucency.

His translations, appropriately, also aim at readers looking for an introduction to Chinese literature rather than at specialists who want to test a fellow academic’s mettle via footnotes and bibliographies. Yet even as the scholar in him acknowledges that he can offer nothing but “one of a variety of tentative interpretations,” the translator in him nevertheless finds ways to make us, in Eliot’s words, “believe that through this translation we really at last get the original.” Of his many translations of classical Chinese philosophy, history, and religion—including the Records of the Grand Historian of China (1961), Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (1968), The Tso Chuan: Selections from China’s Oldest Narrative History (1989), and The Lotus Sutra (1993)—he says his “aim was to make the most famous and influential passages of these texts available in easily readable form so that they could be read by English readers as one reads Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, or Livy.” About “Deer Fence,” Weinberger notes: “His presentation is as direct as the Chinese. There are twenty-four English words (six per line) for the Chinese twenty, yet every word of the Chinese has been translated without indulging, as others have done, in a telegraphic minimalism.” Further, Watson’s translation hints at Wang Wei’s prosody: a five-character Chinese line contains a caesura after the second word; “Empty hills, no one in sight” replays that with a comma, using the Chinese rhythm as the basis for his English free verse.

In another translation, Du Fu’s “Spring Prospect,”[7] Watson does something similar.

The nation shattered, mountains and rivers remain;
city in spring, grass and trees burgeoning.
Feeling the times, blossoms draw tears;
hating separation, birds alarm the heart.
Beacon fires three months in succession,
a letter from home worth ten thousand in gold.
White hairs, fewer for the scratching,
soon too few to hold a hairpin up.*


* Men wore hairpins to keep their caps in place. 

Du Fu (712–770) was of a generation with Wang Wei (699–759) and Li Bai (701–762); in Chinese he is considered the greatest of the three, indeed, the greatest lyric poet of the tradition. But while Wang Wei and Li Bai have been translated repeatedly and successfully, Du Fu in English has proven harder (Watson says Du Fu is the most difficult poet to translate). I find Watson’s Du Fu among the best.

As with Wang Wei and other premodern poets, a pause breaks Du Fu’s five-character line after the second syllable, which, again, Watson implies with the comma in five of the poem’s eight lines. (Snyder inserts a visible caesura into his translation with extra spaces, so that “The nation is ruined, but mountains and rivers remain / This spring the city  is deep in weeds and brush.”[8]) But the form of this poem is not the form of Wang Wei’s quatrain, above, which Watson makes implicit in the punctuation of his end-stopped lines: in “Spring Prospect,” every couplet is a sentence, whereas in “Deer Fence” the sentence is the full quatrain. The form is “regulated verse,” itself the result of medieval translations from Sanskrit, in which the central two couplets in the eight-line poem must observe a strict semantic and prosodic parallelism.[9]

Du Fu was a radical in the history of regulated verse’s development. Following its origins in Sanskrit, the language of sūtras and gāthās, an association with Buddhism developed for regulated verse. But Du Fu was one of the first to nativize, or domesticate, the form and write in it for local and historical topics, such as this poem’s mourning over bodies politic and physical in deterioration (though canonized as of a generation after his death, he was not highly regarded as a poet while alive; perhaps this is part of the reason why). In Chinese Lyricism, Watson explains it this way: before Du Fu, regulated verse “had been mainly for displays of verbal dexterity,” whereas Du Fu brought it “to full maturity” and established the form “as a vehicle for serious poetic statement.” He “packed the utmost amount of skill and significance into the parallel couplets, using them not, as earlier writers had done, to display a series of essentially static tableaux, but to propel the poem forward by putting it through a succession of highly disciplined maneuvers.”[10]

Here, the parallelism requisite in regulated verse’s middle couplets is softened by American English’s historical inattention to the convention, but it emerges nonetheless: a gerund, a conceptual noun, a comma, a noun from nature, a verb, and a noun of emotion define both lines in “Feeling the times, blossoms draw tears; / hating separation, birds alarm the heart.” Watson’s following couplet, “Beacon fires three months in succession, / a letter from home worth ten thousand in gold,” portrays perhaps a subtler artistry. The “beacon fires” 峰火 and “a letter from home” 家書 are parallel in the Chinese, as are the numerical values and elemental metonymy of “three months” 三月 and “ten thousand in gold” 萬金. (“Month” and “gold” are parallel because they are abstractions of the “Seven Luminaries,” or the sun and moon plus the visible planets, themselves named after the five elements: “gold” is metal, or the planet Venus, and “month,” of course, is the moon. In Japanese, the Seven Luminaries also name the days of the week: moon, as in English, is Monday, while metal is Friday, named in Latin dies Veneris, or “day of Venus.”) But Du Fu anchors the components in a central verb in each line, “to link” 連 in the first case and “to be worth” 抵 in the second. Perhaps emphasizing the timelessness many English readers wish to see in Chinese’s lack of tense distinction, Watson’s sentence omits verbs; instead, the parallelism of the lines comes in presenting both images as encapsulated: “three months in succession” and “ten thousand in gold.

Watson’s methods for signifying the regulated verse form in his translation also represent the incisiveness of his revisions; in an earlier-published translation of this poem, among other differences, sentences do not correspond with couplets, and line 5 ends “three months running,” not yet parallel with “ten thousand in gold—” in the following line.[11] But these are implicit formalizations. He makes the form of the poem explicit with a parenthetical “(5-ch. regulated verse; written early in 757 when Du Fu was still a captive in Chang’an)” at the head of the poem. With the note about caps and hairpins, it is the translation’s only scholarly apparatus; together, they frame the poem, reminding the reader that she is reading a translation and, as such, a work of scholarship, distinct from, yet related to, contemporary poetry originally in English. Yet these, too, extend the poem’s poetic effects: regulated verse’s association with Buddhism was embodied in a tendency toward transcendental timelessness in the middle couplets’ parallel imagery, or what Watson called the “essentially static tableaux,” emerging from the immediate scene set and resolved in the first and final couplets (even when, as in “The nation shattered, mountains and rivers remain; / city in spring, grass and trees burgeoning,” the first couplet observes parallelism, too). Coming before and after the translation, Watson’s annotations extend the immediate scene of Du Fu’s capital, Chang’an, into the context of the translation, rising in the middle but rooted at its extremities in the realities facing the poet and, in his paratexts, the translator.

Ascent and grounding describe as well Watson’s reconciliation of the scholarly and poetic demands of translation: the solidity of his knowledge of classical Chinese finds expression in an English that calls attention to itself primarily in how it barely calls attention to itself. It is an extension of the overall architecture of the regulated verse form, down to the “succession of highly disciplined maneuvers” that define the antithetical parallelism of their middle couplets at their best. Where others have presented poetry and translation as forever at odds, Watson’s work sees this conflict as its own static tableau and reduces it to a productive part of his own translational poetics. 

Watson has translated broadly; as his scholarship fits a time when students needed more basic mapmaking than scholars have to provide today, he translated more authors and poets in anthologies and selected representations than seems possible. Because Watson and others laid the groundwork they did, scholars and translators can focus on translating more deeply; now that there are more translators (though not, in fact, more translators of premodern Chinese poetry and philosophy), my hope is that we can meld our voices with smaller sets of individually chosen writers, whose works we would translate in whole, rather than in excerpt or selection pressed too closely against others. The risk of the mode of translation that defines Watson’s generation is not only that our knowledge of a foreign literature looks like so many “greatest hits” collections; it is also that one translator pronouncing so many voices may leave the impression that different writers of different eras sound alike (though to be sure, the premodern Chinese and Japanese poets Watson has translated wrote within a tradition whose discourses were considerably more unified than ours is now). As Eliot Weinberger put it, “Most translators are capable of translating only a few writers in their lifetimes. The rest is rote.”[12]

Still, Watson has said, “one should not be too fussy about what sort of material one is required to translate. Any type of translating is good experience in both the language one is translating out of and into.” Burton Watson’s translations never read as rote. Effortless, translucent, yes. And beneath these illusions, which are not altogether illusions, either, Watson gives us what Yeats called the stitching and unstitching, the parallelism of scholarship and poetry, within one simple act, which is never simple: translation.

University of Hong Kong


[1] In Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated (Kingston, RI: Moyer Bell, 1987), 24. Weinberger’s comments, quoted below, are on p. 25.

[2] William Butler Yeats, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1996), 80–81.

[3] Amy Lowell, preface to Fir-Flower Tablets: Poems Translated from the Chinese, by Florence Ayscough and Amy Lowell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921), v; George A. Kennedy, “Fenollosa, Pound and the Chinese Character,” in Selected Works of George A. Kennedy, ed. Tien-yi Li (New Haven: Far Eastern Publications, Yale University, 1964), 462; James J. Y. Liu, “The Critic as Translator,” in The Interlingual Critic: Interpreting Chinese Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 37; and Tony Barnstone, “The Poem behind the Poem: Literary Translation as American Poetry,” in The Poem behind the Poem: Translating Asian Poetry, ed. Frank Stewart (Port Townsend, Wash: Copper Canyon Press, 2004), 2.

[4] T. S. Eliot, “Introduction: 1928,” in New Selected Poems and Translations, by Ezra Pound, ed. Richard Sieburth, 2nd ed. (New York: New Directions, 2010), 367.

[5] Details of Watson’s life come from personal correspondence with Eliot Weinberger (November 24, 2010), Gary Snyder (January 22, 2014), Joanne Kyger (January 28, 2014), and Jesse Glass (February 5, 2014) as well as from John Balcom, “An Interview with Burton Watson,” Translation Review 70, no. 1 (2005): 7–12. Otherwise unattributed quotations are from the Balcom interview.

Snyder writes that he and his then-wife Kyger “spent time with Burton, and though I don’t remember which book it was, we talked with him at length about his translations of poems from the Chinese and described the effort of contemporary American-language poets to be vernacular, thrifty, precise, and vivid. Joanne in particular talked one on one with Watson several times at length. I think he learned a lot from her, and it was reflected in subsequent volumes of translation.”

Kyger writes, “When I spent a little time speaking with him about his translations, as far as I can recall, it had to do with William Carlos Williams’s concept of scoring the page for the voice, including empty space for breath pauses, or commas; making line breaks at the end of a breath phrase, and generally simplifying the language. I was also very much into Charles Olson’s PROJECTIVE VERSE, as a way to translate the dynamics and energy of the breath and voice to the page.”

Glass, publisher of Ahadada Books, writes that Watson “doesn’t particularly like the very latest of experimental poetry—in fact we have a joke about that—it’s an ‘ahadada’ poem for an ahadada book. . . . The last time we were looking at books together I picked up Thomas Pynchon’s V., and he promised he’d give Pynchon a try. I suggested Gravity’s Rainbow, but if I recall correctly he walked away with the original, 1922 version of Ulysses tucked away in a blue Maruzen bag.”

For more on his Charles Reznikoff reference, see my article, “The Self Is That Which Gets Lost in Translation: A Sociolinguistic View of Chinese Poetry Translation through Modernity and Parataxis,” Forum for World Literature Studies 4, no. 1 (2012), esp. 165–66. Reznikoff pays tribute to Chinese poetry in an interview, quoting Wei Tai 魏泰 (fl. 11th cent.) from the epigram to A. C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang: “Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.” See L. S. Dembo, “The ‘Objectivist’ Poet: Four Interviews [Charles Reznikoff],” Contemporary Literature 10, no. 2 (Spring 1969): 193; and A. C. Graham, Poems of the Late T’ang (London: Penguin, 1965), 7.

[6] Burton Watson, Early Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), 12.

[7] Burton Watson, The Selected Poems of Du Fu, Translations from the Asian Classics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 30.

[8] Gary Snyder, tr., “Spring View,” in The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, ed. Eliot Weinberger (New York: New Directions, 2004), 100.

[9] See Victor Mair and Tsu-Lin Mei, “The Sanskrit Origins of Recent Style Prosody,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 51, no. 2 (December 1, 1991): 375–470.

[10] Burton Watson, Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century, Companions to Asian Studies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), 153–154.

[11] See The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, Translations from the Oriental Classics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 225.

[12] Eliot Weinberger, “3 Notes on Poetry,” in Outside Stories, 1987–1991 (New York: New Directions, 1992), 60. Many years later, Weinberger would reverse this: “I’ve translated some things—most of them many years ago—but just as there are pianists and people who play the piano, there are translators and those who translate. Burton Watson is a translator; I’m a dilettante” (in Jeffrey Errington, “The Eliot Weinberger Interview,” The Quarterly Conversation, June 6, 2011).

Lucas Klein, former radio DJ and union organizer, is a writer, translator, and editor whose work has appeared in Jacket, Rain Taxi, CLEAR, and PMLA, and from Fordham, Black Widow, and New Directions. An assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, his translation Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan 西川 won the 2013 Lucien Stryk Prize and was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award in poetry (see He is translating Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin 李商隱 and seminal contemporary poet Mang Ke 芒克.